On March 24, 2015, a twenty-seven-year-old German pilot named Andreas Lubitz flew an Airbus A 320 into a French mountainside, killing himself and the 149 other people on board. Mr. Lubitz was co-piloting the flight, and he caused the aircraft to crash by locking the pilot out of the flight deck and setting the autopilot to descend to 100 feet.
During the descent, he was contacted by civilian and military traffic controllers, and by the crew of another aircraft, but he made no response. He also ignored repeated and increasingly urgent requests from the captain to be readmitted to the flight deck.
In an earlier flight on the same day, Mr. Lubitz had set the autopilot to descend from 35,000 feet to 100 feet, and returned it to the original setting after three seconds. Investigators suggested that this earlier maneuver may have been a rehearsal for the subsequent murder/suicide.
The crash was investigated by the French Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses (BEA), who issued their final report on March 13, 2016. Here are some of the findings from this report.
Mr. Lubitz had become depressed in August 2008 and had received psychiatric treatment, including psychiatric drugs, between November 2008 and July 2009.
Mr. Lubitz had been rated “above standard” on professionalism and skill by his instructors and examiners.
Mr. Lubitz’s private physicians refused to be interviewed by the BEA.
On February 24, 2015, four weeks before the murder/suicide, Mr. Lubitz received his first prescription of mirtazapine from his psychiatrist. Mirtazapine, which is marketed in the US as Remeron, is an antidepressant with serotonergic activity. Adverse effects include suicide risk, apathy, and aggression (RxList). In the US, mirtazapine carries a suicide risk black box warning.
On March 16, 2015, eight days before the murder/suicide, Mr. Lubitz received further prescriptions of Escitalopram, Dominal, and Zolpidem from his psychiatrist. Escitalopram, which is marketed in the US as Lexapro, is an SSRI antidepressant, and also carries a suicide black box warning. Dominal (prothipendyl) is described as having a weak anti-psychotic potency (Wikipedia, translation from German), and is used to reduce restlessness and agitation. Zolpidem (marketed as Ambien) is a sleeping pill.
In an email sent to his psychiatrist in March 2015, Mr. Lubitz stated that he had taken additional drugs: Mirtazapine (15mg) and Lorazepam (1 mg).
Toxicological examination of the co-pilot’s human tissue found at the crash site detected the presence of citalopram and mirtazapine (both anti-depressants), and zopiclone (a sleeping pill).
Expressions of Concern
Since the publication of the BEA Final Report, concerns have been expressed by various individuals and groups, including bereaved relatives of the victims. In general, these concerns have focused on the following issues:
- That Lufthansa (the parent airline) should have done more to protect their customers.
- That because of medical confidentiality, Mr. Lubitz was able to hide his depression and his use of antidepressant drugs from his employer.
- That several of the doctors involved in Mr. Lubitz’s care refused to provide information to the BEA investigators.
- That Mr. Lubitz had managed to keep his pilot’s license, despite his history with depression and psychiatric drugs.
But there has been relatively little attention focused on what is, at least in my view, the most glaring and pertinent aspect of the matter:
That Mr. Lubitz was flying a commercial aircraft under the influence of powerful psychiatric drugs that have long been associated with murder/suicides.
Links Between Murder/Suicide and Serotonin Disruptor Drugs
On September 14, 1989, a few weeks after he had started taking Prozac (the first SSRI), Joseph Wesbecker, of Louisville, Kentucky, went on a rampage at his place of employment, killing eight and wounding twelve others, before taking his own life. Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, settled the subsequent litigation for an undisclosed sum that was said to be “mind boggling” (Joseph Glenmullen, Prozac Backlash, 2000, p. 176). In the interim years, there have been numerous similar incidents.
It is now 36 years since Drs. Teicher, Glod, and Cole wrote:
“Six depressed patients free of recent serious suicidal ideation developed intense, violent suicidal preoccupation after 2-7 weeks of fluoxetine treatment. This state persisted for as little as 3 days to as long as 3 months after discontinuation of fluoxetine. None of these patients had ever experienced a similar state during treatment with any other psychotropic drug.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 1990. [Fluoxetine, marketed as Prozac, is an SSRI]
Over the next two years, similar reports appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (here) and (here), Journal of Family Practice, American Journal of Psychiatry (here) and (here), Archives of General Psychiatry, Human Psychopharmacology, and the Lancet.
And similar tragic incidents have occurred with more recent drugs that tamper with the brain’s serotonin systems.
Nevertheless, psychiatry, to its eternal shame, has made no attempt to study definitively the role that psychiatric drugs play in these matters. Instead, there has been spin: more “treatment” is needed for “mental illness”; these drugs are safe when “properly prescribed”; the benefits outweigh the risks; etc…
It was even stated, by Connecticut Assistant Attorney General, Patrick B. Kwanashie, in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders/suicide that it would not be wise to divulge the drugs found in the shooter’s post-mortem examination, for fear that it would “… cause a lot of people to stop taking their medications.”
Even the horrific events of March 24, 2015, in the French Alps have been insufficient to jar psychiatry from its sordidly self-serving, guild-defensive silence into something resembling common decency. It took ten minutes for the Airbus to descend from 38,000 feet to its crash site on a French mountain; ten minutes of indescribable terror for 149 innocent men, women, and children. It is time – indeed it is long past time – for psychiatry to acknowledge the role that these pills are playing in these tragedies, to conduct a definitive study of this matter, and to publicize the problem honestly and prominently.
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On February 26, 2016, David Jolly, a member of the US House from Florida’s 13th District, introduced a bill directing the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to complete a publicly available review of the deaths of all veterans who died by suicide during the preceding five years. The review would include a list of all medications prescribed to, and found in the system of, such veterans at the time of their deaths.
On March 7, the bill was sent to the Subcommittee on Health. It will be interesting to watch its progress or lack thereof. It will be interesting to see if politicians have more courage to buck their pharma paymasters than psychiatrists. They certainly couldn’t have less.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.